I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between climate change and travelling. Part of this comes from finally handing in my PhD. I’ve been cooped up behind my desk for a good few months, and it’s been a long time (barring a couple of weekends and field trips) since I’ve really had the opportunity to go anywhere or do much exciting. The last decent trip I did was a pre-conference field trip around parts of Australia, a week long road trip from Sydney to Melbourne two long years ago. Even though it was a work trip (and thus spent almost entirely underground), we had a fantastic time doing some quick exploration of the Blue Mountains and Kosciuszko National Park. Kosciuszko in particular was an absolutely stunning locale, true wilderness in places with stunning vistas and wild horses and kangaroos roaming freely. I would love to go back there (spiders aside) and spend a few days or weeks wandering around.
That said, another visit to Australia isn’t on the cards for me any time soon. The last visit was only possible thanks to my research grant paying for the flights to the conference (thanks EU!), and a convenient talk prize paying for the field trip (suck it BP!). International flights simply aren’t available on my personal travel budget at the end of a PhD when I’m job hunting. I’m also starting to question the morality of it, to be perfectly honest. The carbon footprint of that journey, according to one calculator online, is apparently the equivalent of 4.96 tonnes of CO2 for the flights alone. Given that the average carbon footprint of a human globally is 4 tonnes/year it seems a somewhat excessive thing to so cavalierly dump that much more CO2 into the atmosphere. I can justify it to myself when I’m doing it for a climate change related conference (barely), but how can I claim to love the natural world and contribute to so much damage to it at the same time? How can I justify doing that damage in the name of exploring it? It seems an act of almost arrogant selfishness to consider making trips like that for my own gratification, knowing that climate change can destroy the very environments I’m travelling to see.
I got into climate change research to make a difference. I did a PhD to try and add to our knowledge of the climate system, and I even think I succeeded in doing my part to add that little tiny sliver of knowledge that the next person can build upon. At, more or less, the end of that journey I’m kind of unsatisfied with it. As much as I enjoyed that trip to Australia, as good as that conference was, did I achieve anything there? Possibly one day the proxy technique I discovered will lead to greater understanding of the climate system. But it won’t stop climate change. It won’t curb CO2 emissions. And it won’t make a difference.
So what can I do that will? I’m currently looking for jobs with a slightly more direct impact, perhaps not as global an impact, but something more measured and immediate. I’m pursuing something in the environmental sector (and hey, if you’re hiring and interested hit me up!), something where I can work on sustainable transport, or energy, or educating the public. But that’s a slightly different conversation for a different time. At the moment I want to talk about travelling, adventuring and the outdoors.
You don’t have to look very far on the Internet, or for that matter in a library, to find a philosopher (wannabe or otherwise) proclaiming loudly about the benefits of travel. They talk about self-betterment, of stress-relief, of broadening one’s horizons, of seeing the wonders of the world, and a whole host of other statements (for a typical essay on the form, try here). These statements aren’t necessarily wrong, or at least I don’t necessarily disagree with them. I think though, that in an age where we’re finally starting to realise the impact those travels have on the world a round the world ticket becomes something much harder to justify. It’s almost a statement, not of a desire to broaden one’s horizons, but of a desire to selfishly exploit them. It’s a display of wealth and privilege not available to most. John and Jane Smith, fresh out of university, flying to Africa on an organised tour to climb Kilimanjaro aren’t raising awareness of anything – and I have my doubts about the journey being all that useful for self-discovery. Meanwhile, they’re wearing another path into the hillside, taking another few flights and driving another few hundred miles in 4x4s.
So maybe, just maybe, it’s time for a new philosophy about travelling. After all, in a globalised and multicultural world we can experience other cultures in our own hometowns. You can watch a Mexican drama, eating Indian food, whilst sitting on Swedish furniture if you so desire. Other cultures are everywhere around us, and it’s a daily wonder. We haven’t yet found a way to bring the Grand Canyon into our own home, but Google are probably working on it.
So here’s a suggestion: let’s spend a bit less time on planning grand gap year adventures around South East Asia, and spend a little bit more time exploring our backyards instead. The carbon footprint of going for a bike ride a few miles up the road and then sleeping in the woods is a lot lower than an international flight. All of those truisms about travelling hardening you up or helping you to learn who you truly are (“The true quarry of any great adventurer. Is the undiscovered territory of their own soul” and all that) are just as true when you travel under your own steam. Maybe we can redefine ecotourism to mean something that is actually ecologically friendly. Is it eco-friendly to dump oxygen bottles at base camp? Is it eco-friendly to tramp large tour groups through sensitive environments? Let’s take fewer trips to raise awareness of problems (whilst contributing to them), and instead promote more low carbon journeys supporting local businesses, exploring local landscapes and keeping the wild actually wild. And hey, maybe while you’re camping in the woods pick up a few empty cans and bottles to dispose of huh?
Disclaimer: It’s winter, I’m poor, and I’ve not been on holiday in a long time. Maybe this is all just sour grapes, and not high-minded environmentalism. Who can tell?